What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear words like fluorinated chemicals and formaldehyde? I’ll take a wild guess it’s not fashion. But it maybe should be.
Fluorinated chemicals are among the world’s most toxic materials. These toxins are used across industries to provide strength, resilience and durability sounds great right? Wrong. These hazardous toxins are resistant to degradation so they break down slowly (if at all) in the environment. When these chemicals are added to consumer products, they can migrate into air, household dust, food, and can pollute drinking water. You’re currently playing with these chemicals when you cook in your non-stick pan, wear your winter boots, throw on your fave screen print shirt (that likely says something ridiculous like “I’m a mermaid-unicorn") and when you wand your daily dose of mascara. Per Vogue business, “they’ve been found in the blood and breast milk of the vast majority of people who’ve been tested.” Yikes!
One of the main reasons fluorinated chemicals are used is because of it’s amazing stain-resistant ability and the lack of alternatives available. Levi Strauss & Co. decided the benefit of stain resistance didn’t justify its environmental cost and discontinued an entire product category that used the chemical, despite it being a significant business to the company. This is case in point what we mean when we talk about the concept of the greater good!
Wonder how some of the shirts you buy seem to stay so crisp? That’s thanks to formaldehyde’s anti-wrinkle properties. Also, the same chemical used in medical labs as a tissue preservative and in pesticides and fertilizers. Yuck! Given the choice, ten out of ten times, I’ll take a wrinkled shirt. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard (a pioneer of the greater good concept) has unapologetically nixed formaldehyde since he founded the brand in the 1970s, confidently stating “Our clothes are meant to be worn to get dirty and explore in — people can worry about wrinkles in their other clothes.” With a net worth over $1B, I think it’s safe to say Yvon’s decisions aren’t so absurd.
What’s the solution? Reducing or eliminating the use of these chemicals. The first step includes eliminating nonessential uses of these chemicals. Simply put, “It’s possible we use them kind of like antibiotics. You use it when needed,” says Scott Echols, programme director for ZDHC. These hazardous chemicals are used for wire and cable insulation for computer and cell phone circuits to enable high-speed data transfer; high reliability hoses for aircraft and cars to reduce emissions; and sterile equipment used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals,food products, and chemicals and in firefighting foams for extinguishing fires. These feel like essential reasons to employ harmful chemicals — keeping your shoes bright white does not. Can we agree on that?
As with most things it starts with us, the consumer, and being curious about what’s going into products we're using on a daily basis. It also means supporting businesses like Patagonia and Levi’s who are making change now. Change will happen when customers tell companies with purchasing power what they expect from them.
One small change you can make today? Consider switching to an organic dry-cleaner. Dry-cleaning facilities use a TON of both fluorinated chemicals and formaldehyde. Be sure to ask whichever dry-cleaner that claims themselves as organic what treatments they actually use (not all are equal). Moral of the story, be curios, ask questions, propose change!